Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Wide Area Sandbox

There's an idea I can't get out of my head - it keeps rattling around in there since I got exposed to Stars Without Number and the idea of generating a sector of space as a sandbox - how can we take the standard D&D sandbox, blow it up in size, and let the players cut loose with serious mobility?

For purposes of scale, I'll say something like Keep on the Borderlands, with its limited wilderness area, town and cave complex, is a micro-sandbox; a regular sized sandbox is in the 6 miles per hex range, covering 2-4 hex crawl sized maps.  The regular sandbox is a good size if your group is trudging around or even traveling by horse; journeys are measured in hours and days, but rarely weeks.

The Wide Area Sandbox
Mobility defines the scale of the Wide Area Sandbox.  Consider the idea of the "Saltbox" I'm seeing the cool bloggers talk about; the group is traveling from place to place on ships and time is measured in days, weeks, maybe even months.

I'll use a historical setting like the Spanish Main as an example; it covered an area roughly 2,000 miles by 2,000 miles; it would be one of my first inspirations for a Saltbox.  You've got excellent home bases like Port Royale, Havana, Tortuga, Charleston, or Porto Bello, international competition between privateers and ships flying national colors, pirates, tons of uncharted islands, dangerous jungles laden with gold.

It seems to me that the current state of the art could handle such a setting quite well - larger and smaller scale hex maps could be created, random tables for island stocking, one could even adapt the Stars Without Number style of tags for islands, and tools for generating a wide range of ships, crews, and missions on the fly.  The DM could have some prebuilt ruins and similar encounters ready to go for when the results called for it.  I've got to fool with Vornheim some more, too, and see if some of the loose ideas on presenting an undefined city could be extrapolated into the wilderness.

The Macro Sandbox
Let's talk about going bigger.  Let's start the group back in the homeland - I'll use the early modern period as an example, and the group is considering hiring on with the West Araby Trading company after asking around for exciting opportunities - they learn that the following high risk jobs are available:

Travel to an exotic port near the desert lands, where the company is outfitting caravans to head into the desert and conduct searches for lost tombs, from which they hope to recover artifacts that could be thousands of years old.

The church is sending missionaries to a distant jungle land to preach the faith; dangers include pirates, privateers, and hostile natives.  There's the chance to stop on uncharted islands, recover lost pirate treasures, and discover civilizations and lands untouched by the "civilized nations".

So this is one of the things I'm thinking about - what kind of tools would support a macro-sandbox?  Is there a way to take the current state of the art - the techniques we use for sandboxes and saltboxes, and configure them to support play that supports an even grander scale of travel?

I'm also kicking around the idea of what something akin to an early modern D&D game would be like for me - there would be highly civilized lands, where adventures would be necessarily mundane and magic would be rare.  Monsters would be fairly rare in downtown London, for instance.  So the plot hooks would involve traveling extraordinary distances to remote frontiers where the possibilities would still be wide open - the Spanish Main, African continent, the gothic heart of old Europe, the frozen areas near the arctic circle.  Here there be dragons.

Maybe I've answered the question by repeatedly pulling in real-world analogues - that such a far flung campaign would have to draw heavily from the real world so the DM could shortcut a lot of the creation of the mundane cultures and just focus on sandboxing the frontiers - and then whatever techniques would be used for the Wide Area Sandbox would be extended to the frontiers (each frontier is basically a Wide Area Sandbox).

Just thinking out loud at this point.  What's the most ambitious geographic scale you've seen in someone's home fantasy campaign?


  1. umm.... check out

  2. I don't know about anyone else. But I always run the Macro-Sandbox. It is an earth analog though.

  3. Oh yeah, I'm definitely familiar with Alexis' grand project. I'd say modeling all of 17th century Eurasia Tao-style is quite a bit more ambitious than using random tables and other tools and techniques to model a sandbox (even a macro sandbox).

    But it's a fair point - one way to model a larger world is by using the *actual real world* as the model.

  4. @Zzarchov - yep, using an earth analog is probably the best way to go... this post made a big impact on me back in the day:

    Campaigns with Depth

  5. Nice post - I'd love to run such a game at some point. I haven't played Stars Without Number, but it seems from what I hear that you could use it to run a saltbox game set in a big archipelago, a la Earthsea perhaps.

    One thing you would need, I think, is some means of modelling weather and seasons. These could have a big effect on trade and travel.

  6. The sandbox I'm using is one country and surrounding wilderness size, about 900 miles across. Most of it isn't fleshed out, just some main towns, roads, landscape and province lines. It's a low magic campaign so there is enough room to slide most things I'm interested in doing in there. I find this gives me enough framework to accommodate the players when they decide to ask questions of travelling merchants or sages. Almost all of the play has been in the area of one town for now, if they decided to travel west for more than a couple days i'd have to figure out small villages and encounters, but I wouldn't have to figure out where the towns, roads and forests and lakes were.

  7. Monsters and Mazes does something like this with its fantasy Homeric voyages: random generators for mysterious islands, lost temples, strange cities.

    M&M's equivalent of hexcrawls: 'random Odysseys' wherein the party bob about in their trireme until they run into ADVENTURE!

  8. I am not limiting my world to Eurasia. That is merely all I have been able to map thus far.

  9. Yeah, that's super ambitious. I need to spend some time looking around your place and getting a sense on what's worked in your approach. My preference would be to keep 'travel maps' in mundane areas at a much higher scale and level of abstraction than 'adventure maps' in frontier areas where hex-by-hex mapping is absolutely warranted.

  10. What 'works' in my approach is me. I'm highly educated, flexible, open-minded to player interests and wishes, renaissance-oriented and a skilled researcher. Thus, when some bit of information is needed, I either know it or know where to find it, in short order...and having a scientific mind, I'm ready to change it on a moments notice without feeling regret.

    If you want to work in scale, the scale has to first exist in the DM's head; if the DM thinks small, the world has to be small.